Democrats have reintroduced the Equality Act yet again

OPINION: We need more than a single piece of legislation to protect queer and trans lives

As the anti-LGBTQ2S+ movement has grown across the U.S. in recent years, explicitly pro-queer and -trans legislation at any level of government has been hard to come by. There have been rare wins—such as the passage of sanctuary laws for trans people and families of trans kids fleeing legislative persecution in red states—but overall, we’re no longer seeing efforts to pass state level laws that seemed to be commonplace even in moderate states a decade ago.

Into that void, pro-equality political organizations have attempted a more national approach, trying and failing to pass the Equality Act through the federal legislature every time it’s been introduced. Despite the lack of success, Democrats in Congress reintroduced the Equality Act once again on Wednesday, to commemorate Pride month.

We’re unlikely to see a different outcome this time around. The bill, which would add LGBTQ2S+ people as a protected category to existing federal civil rights legislation, has no chance of passing into law this legislative session with Republicans controlling the House. Even when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, they couldn’t pass the Equality Act because Republicans have always succeeded in filibustering the bill and blocking a vote.

With moderate democratic Senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema opposing abolishment of the filibuster, the LGBTQ2S+ civil rights bill has languished as a mere showpiece for Democrats to point to in order to prove how supportive they are of queer and trans people.

“As extreme MAGA state legislators across the country continue their assault on LGBTQ+ Americans, especially the trans community, the fight against bigotry and discrimination remains urgent as ever,” former Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday in a statement about the reintroduction of the act.

After all of these years, it’s worth revisiting what the bill would actually do to counteract the current anti-trans movement and whether it still serves a purpose for national LGBTQ2S+ advocacy organizations to pursue passage of.

Off the bat, the bill would add an extra layer of federal legal protection in many areas of everyday queer—and especially trans—life. Republicans in many red states are trying to limit which bathroom or other public gendered space, like locker rooms, trans people can use, and the Equality Act’s public accommodation protections would effectively make it illegal for those states to pass such measures.

Another prong of the anti-trans panic are the so-called “forced outing” bills that would require school officials to tell parents if a student discloses gender dysphoric feelings or displays gendered behaviour that strays from existing gender stereotypes, even if the child feels unsafe in coming out to their parents. The Equality Act’s education protections would effectively stop schools from singling out and discriminating against trans students in this way.

 

As well, anti-trans activists have made no secret that they want to ban transition care for all trans people of any age, but have cleverly inflamed the emotions of cis people by targeting youth care first. Some red states which have banned or limited transition care for minors are already seeing a knock on effect that limits care options for trans adults. The Equality Act would essentially bar these state-level laws as well.

So the Equality Act remains a critical weapon for LGBTQ2S+ people to fight back against the waves of anti-queer and trans legislation currently making its way through red state legislatures. In that sense, the fact that the Act will likely never pass under the current rules of the Senate makes this all so much more frustrating. Republicans have blocked nearly every major piece of pro-LGBTQ2S+ rights legislation that has been introduced over the last 30 years and the filibuster has been their primary method of doing so.

Democrats have gotten close to passing major LGBTQ2S+ rights legislation a handful of times over the years—the only recent success being the passing of a bill last session that codified marriage equality in federal law. But given the sheer hatred for LGBTQ2S+ lives being brewed up by the political even then, it felt a bit like fighting a forest fire with a garden hose.

“Every June a bunch of Democratic politicians trot out and introduce an Equality Act that they know has no chance of passing.”

In its earliest days, there were high hopes that the Equality Act would be the last step in achieving LGBTQ2S+ equality. I’ve personally written about the Equality Act every year it’s been introduced in Congress since 2015 and it’s never gotten close to passing both houses, and prospects for the bill have only worsened over time.

It’s become almost a ritual for me as a trans political journalist. Every June a bunch of Democratic politicians trot out and introduce an Equality Act that they know has no chance of passing. They do their song and dance, feigning concern for the fate of their queer and trans constituents while every year the state of our rights and acceptance worsens. In 2016, there was maybe some hope of a bright trans future, now in 2023, we have neo-Nazis openly marching against Pride events and cis liberals “just asking questions” about nearly every aspect of our lives and care. It’s the most horrific version of Groundhog Day one could possibly conjure.

What’s even more frustrating is there is essentially nothing these politicians could do beyond trying to pass the Equality Act, even if I did believe they were sincerely interested in our well-being. I could say they need to kill the filibuster in order to pass this bill, but there would essentially be nothing to stop Republicans from just undoing the law if they ever get power back, which would essentially leave our lives hostage to whichever political party happens to be in power.

What I wish for most, however, is for Democrats to actually put up a fight. They always seem so embarrassed to fight for us, at least on the national level. Sure there are few legislators who have personal connections to trans family members who aren’t afraid to fight for us, but most of the time, we hardly ever get anything other than a mealy-mouthed or canned statement on our collective behalf.

What has become clear over time is that we have a long way to go in not only achieving equality for queer and trans people but also in achieving the public acceptance that has long eluded us. A single piece of legislation, no matter how ambitious or well-intended, won’t give us that.

Katelyn Burns is a freelance journalist and columnist for Xtra and MSNBC. She was the first openly trans Capitol Hill reporter in U.S. history.

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